Around the world, credible objections to nuclear energy have progressively contracted to issues of time and cost to deliver. Even here, the data favours a large role for nuclear energy with other solutions. Yet the opponents are not all wrong either. Nuclear energy must improve its global profile in on-time and at-cost delivery, not to outpace renewables, but to displace more fossil fuels. For those primarily driven by effective action on climate change, that’s the difference between succeeding and failing. Observers will need to decide who they trust in this vital conversation.

Nuclear commentary in 2016 began with reinforcement of a transnational trend: credible objection to nuclear energy is increasingly confined to two issues: cost of the plants and time to deliver them.

This is welcome progress. It seems there has been too much discussion, transparent information and experience for the more traditional, fear-laden arguments to cut through the way they once did.

Friends of the Earth UK got this ball rolling back in 2013 when their commissioned independent review of nuclear energy left them with no other credible basis for objection. Last year, The Australia Institute went to great lengths to present timeframes as a problem, butchering good process to get the desired result. Australian Senator Scott Ludlam could hardly find room for anything other than economics in his recent piece. Time and cost were the lead arguments in recent rebuttal at New Matilda and in a piece from Michael James to the Sydney Morning Herald.

Recently, Joe Romm took up the topic[1] with a reflection on the work of James Hansen, Kerry Emanuel, Ken Caldeira and Tom Wigley (Hansen et al.) at the recent COP 21 meeting in Paris. What is complex about this piece is that much is basically factual and reasonable reflection of current findings for the nuclear industry. Sadly much is also highly selective, largely straw-man[2] argument. Romm ignores the core problem identified by Hansen et al: settling for energy pathways that are “reasonable” in today’s terms is a recipe for failure, so we must do more. This should be applauded and developed. Romm chose to belittle and undermine.

He observed, as many have before him, that new nuclear build is struggling to take off in liberalised energy markets. This perspective is one-eyed for two reasons. Firstly, by population these markets are the vast minority of the world. Most of the world’s people are not living in conditions so saturated in electrical generating capacity that planning has been handed over to market forces with short-term horizons. Consequently, most of the growth to come in energy demand will not be from liberalised markets but planned markets where the longer-term value presented by nuclear technology can carry more weight in decision-making. This is reflected in the recent request for procurement for 9,600 MW of nuclear power for South Africa [3]. This market opportunity must be fostered to tip energy investments in developing nations away from fossil fuels and toward nuclear. It is nuclear technology that presents a complete, fit-for-purpose technical substitute for coal.

Energy by income band

Figure 1 How most of the world lives- population and per capita energy consumption of different global income brackets. Data from United Nations Population Division; World Bank (World Development Indicators)

Secondly, this market situation also applies to more expensive renewables technologies with higher availability (such as solar thermal with storage). For hard evidence of the matter, Australia’s simplistically-conceived Renewable Energy Target is now 15 years old. In that time it has assisted to market not one solar thermal plant with energy storage. The price to meet the scheme has been mainly set by low-availability, lowest marginal cost on-shore wind[4]. Renewable advocates are swift to identify market failure and recommend either reform or different subsidies, rather than write-off the technology. What we need is both cheaper technology and affirmative policy that is technology neutral. That’s just what Hansen et al. are seeking.

Romm scoffed at Sweden as an example of rapid nuclear build because it relates to only 10 reactors. Yet normalised for population, nothing in history has been faster than nuclear for adding clean energy. Hansen et al. wisely call for reflection on that evidence. They spoke of a scenario of 115 reactor builds per year, something Romm described as “indefensibly absurd”.

Consider that there are currently 510 coal plants under construction globally and 1,874 in planning. Is that absurd? Horrific? Choose your adjective, however this is the scale of a world of  7-billion people and growing. Hansen et al. asked us to deploy that scaling effect to reliable clean energy. Labeling it “absurd” is simply part of the longitudinal effort toward self-reinforcing failure and inaction favoured by anti-nuclear commentators[5].

082615_0346_Howlongdoes1.png

Romm described as “myth” the suggestion anti-nuclear activism holds back the expansion of nuclear power.  This is flatly contradicted by Harvey Wassermann. He attributes the permanent premature closure of the Vermont Yankee nuclear station to “decades of hard grassroots campaigning” that “forced this reactor’s corporate owner to bring it down”. Australian activist Jim Green is unashamed in calling for mobilisation to prevent nuclear energy from having any access to the United Nation’s Green Climate Fund. He contends this could come at “the expense of renewables” and “we mustn’t let them get away with it!”. This raises technology tribalism to a new level of transparent grotesquery where the whims of western activists are prioritised over optimising mitigation outcomes in the developing world.

ENGOs direct resources toward activities that deliver results. Many maintain dedicated anti-nuclear campaigners and campaigns. This works toward prejudiced, technologically-tribal energy policies. Nuclear was excluded from joint-implementation projects under the Clean Development Mechanism while efficient coal plants were included. It was excluded from Australia’s technology-limited Renewable Energy Target that has, for nearly 15 years functioned as a slightly removed subsidy for wind and solar PV (and water heating). Nuclear has been disadvantaged by recent US policy that provides no recognition of extending the license of existing nuclear plants for carbon abatement. Romm’s assertion that the impact of activism is mythical is disingenuous.

So too is the pretence that it’s all the activist’s fault. There are real issues with time and cost for nuclear technology. I was quick to criticise the proposed cost of Hinkley Point C as too high. Others eventually withdraw support for that specific development claiming to be “pro-nuclear, but not at any price”. There is truth in Romm’s piece that currently nuclear just is not growing quickly enough, price is one driver of this and resolution of challenges is required to hit greater deployment. Hansen et al. known this: that’s their point. It is time for Romm and other climate hawks (to borrow his phrase) to get focused on solutions.

Instead Romm refers to the strong growth and falling prices in renewables to diminish this issue. This misses the point entirely. Take the most recent energy projections from BP to 2035. The projected growth in non-hydro renewables is an extraordinary 235 %, taking it to a larger share than nuclear energy in that time. Yet in absolute terms, the energy added is nearly the same as that added from a modest 20 % growth in coal alone. Meanwhile gas and liquid fuels (nearly all fossil) is projected to add 2.8 times more energy than the non-hydro renewables. So Romm is right: nuclear is growing too slowly. This is a problem that must be overcome. At this point, it behoves observers to ask who is interested in overcoming that problem, and who is interested in prolonging it.

Table 1 Projected energy growth across fuel groups in millions of tons of oil equivalent. Data from BP Energy Outlook 2015
Annual consumption 2015 Annual consumption 2035 Growth 2015-2035
Liquids 4,280 5,065 18%
     Biofuels 68 132 93%
Gas 3,020 4,558 51%
Coal 3,816 4,564 20%
Nuclear 633 842 33%
Hydro 898 1,249 39%
Wind/solar/other renewables 347 1,177 240%

 

It is clear that the nuclear sector must deliver more, beyond current expectations, if we are to decarbonise apace. It is wise, therefore, that as well as looking to (a) historic precedent to galvanise greater ambition and (b) affirmative market policy,  Hansen et al rightly look also toward new generation reactors as one way to accelerate deployment. It is one reason I will direct efforts to the work of Terrestrial Energy as a member of their advisory board. This is not in place of my broader efforts in the clean energy discussion but in complement to them.

Whatever the eventual clean energy mix, the challenge is so great that the task will remain Herculean. We have to be prepared for that. But selective pieces such as Romm’s only serve to obfuscate the pathway to progress. This will render the task Sisyphean as the growth in energy demand overwhelms any gains we might make. Sober realism demands holistically looking at global energy requirements, historic technology deployment rates and advantages of various energy sources to forge optimised solutions for every part of the world and pressing to overcome barriers to that outcome. It is true that time is not our ally, so the sooner we move beyond simplistic, motivated argument, the better.

 

[1] I was at the press conference in Paris, as well as doing some work there of my own. The subsequent misrepresentation of Hansen et al. and other nuclear advocates has been positively willful. Fortunately the transcript is available here and a video of my panel is available here . Do not be misled by others regarding the message we brought and the motivations behind it.

[2] For another valuable reflection on the article from Romm, I refer readers to http://energyforhumanity.org/featured/nuclear-power-climate-activists-disagree/ by David Gattie

[3] Consider also the nuclear development programs of sun-drenched UAE and Saudi Arabia, the major programs of China and India as well as the preparations underway in nations like Kenya, Nigeria and Vietnam.

[4] There are a little over 500,000 certificates in the large-scale generation REC register attributed to solar and approximately 65.5 million certificates for wind. Currently, the two largest solar generating plants in Australia are PV with 155 MW capacity. Good solar resource is clearly not everything. REC Registry

[5] For more on the fallacies of the “time and cost” argument I recommend “Climate Gamble” by Partanen and Korhonen. There is no better assembly and consideration of these issues written for people with concern about climate change and clean energy.

14 comments

  1. Unfortunately the anti nuclear activists and their NGOs are driven by fear, technical illiteracy and greed. That is to say fear that coming out as pronuclear will cost them both cash donations (funding for salaries and expenses in some cases these amount to major perks) and bodies at their various protests and publicity stunts which will cost them political power and access to political power

  2. The LGC subsidy is now about $75 per Mwh and commercial solar projects get over 50% capital subsidies. Yet it seems unlikely we can achieve the 33 Twh RET in 2020 from the current 19 Twh. That’s out of 248 Twh annual demand. Despite that generous support for renewables Australia’s electricity sector emissions are growing again following the repeal of carbon tax. The present approach of generous subsidies for renewables is both costly and ineffective at reducing emissions.

    On the other hand replacing coal and gas baseload with nuclear could knock off nearly 30% of our emissions and set us up for overnight charging of millions of electric vehicles. Westinghouse have quoted $A17.5 bn for twin AP 1000s producing 2.2 GWe per site. For seven sites roughly producing roughly a combined 15 GW the capex would be $123 bn. Compare that to talk of spending $50 bn just on diesel submarines.

    That assumes light water NP is the way to go with enrichment and reprocessing deferred to a later time. On a side note I now think Dept Defence controlled Woomera is the only place that will fly politically as a high level waste site. That’s despite Rann ruling it out in 2004. If that decision was made early other steps in Australia’s nuclear development could fall into line.

  3. As usual, thoroughly referenced and topical.

    Thanks, Ben, for putting your effort and knowledge into your site.

    My side note concerns the SA nuclear royal commission. Next month’s interim report will be essential reading for everybody in the energy and climate change discussions, including globally. I hope that your contribution, which I have read, does not go without notice.

  4. From the other side of the globe, I note that popular opposition to nuclear no longer seems to hold sway in these parts. Here’s an article by the Ontario Green Party Leader scolding the current government for approving the $13M refurbishment of Ontario’s Darlington CANDU facility. Note the overwhelming support for the government’s stance in the comments responding to the article. This in spite of the poor track record of the current government in regards to past misguided energy policies. Both this article and the responses to the Huffington Post article are giving me hope for the future!

  5. “End-game for nuclear opposition?”

    Thanks Ben for your analysis on the slow burning renewables/nuclear arguement.

    One of the main arguments against nuclear energy in Australia is that we just don’t need it as 100% renewables would be cheaper without the problems (real and imagined) that come with nuclear energy. This argument is often supported by referencing some of the studies done in the last decade suggesting this outcome is viable. The major assumptions and exclusions in these studies are often lost behind the positive messages they express.

    It would be interesting to move beyond words and test the 100% renewables argument in the real world with a whole system approach rather than the testing of components in isolation.

    We have some small isolated grids in Australia and could get some valuable research from subsidising one as a comprehensive trial for 100% renewable energy. By putting all the components together, (energy sources, the actual network, storage/backup and energy efficiency) the true costs and reliability could be better measured.

    As an example Thursday Island currently has 100,000 litres of diesel delivered every week to provide energy for a population of around 3000. It has good renewable resources of wind, solar and tidal flows and like much of Australia, wastes much energy with split A/Cs cooling poorly insulated buildings. As no long distances are driven it would also suit electric vehicles.

    My own guess is that the costs would prove horrendous on a per capita basis as the rising costs of renewable energy with increasing grid penetration is demonstrated. But the real value would be bringing real world data into the main debate as well as finding solutions on how to decarbonise remote areas that will never be part of the main grid.

    1. There’s the fairly advanced King Island experiment but no EVs
      http://www.kingislandrenewableenergy.com.au/
      I understand to keep power prices to a flat 27c per kwh they still use subsidised diesel (petro and bio), some $2m a year I last heard. A meat processing firm quit the island citing high power prices. The vanadium redox flow battery was apparently abandoned in favour of lead acid with capacitors. The proposed 600 MW wind farm is not going ahead though it now seems a good idea to have a second underwater HVDC cable as Basslink is offline until March.

      1. Thanks for link John,

        King Island looks like an attempt to create a renewables grid that has run out of money. Perhaps that is the major take away discovery? It is a pity the whole costing structure was not more transparent since King Island is a windy place competing against imported diesel.

        It seems a contradiction that they are aiming at 65% renewables but have cancelled further wind turbines now that a major industry has closed down and reduced demand and despite earlier turbines being near the end of their useful life. (Coincidently the 2 x 225Kw wind turbines on Thursday Is also need replacing).

        It says something that the 100% renewables studies have trouble translating into real world assets even on very small scales.

        Perhaps the best argument for nuclear energy is to try even harder to create a 100% renewables grid.

        1. Tas Hydro have some other eye opening projects. For Rottnest Island WA note the aim is not to store intermittent energy with batteries but to store product namely desalinated water
          http://www.hydro.com.au/about-us/news/2015-11/diesel-%E2%80%98de-sal%E2%80%99-rottnest-island-creating-power-and-drinking-water-lower-costs-
          I’m sure mainland wind power was supposed to ‘offset’ those emissions. TH are also working on the 330 MW X 5 hour pumped hydro for Kidston Qld gold mine. No decision yet.

          However TH goofed letting so much water out of the dams so 40% of the state’s power was coming from the mainland, the top end Basslink inverter-rectifier substation being next to Loy Yang brown coal station. Basslink was damaged (fishing trawler?) at 80m depth and needs repair. If Tas has power and water rationing by autumn surely the 100% renewables crowd will see the problems.

  6. One of the main costs however in the low income countries is building the grid required to deliver the power from centralized power stations to the homes. (Gas, coal or nuclear)

    A solar panel and battery will deliver them night time lighting without having to build the grid in the first place.

    I think nuclear’s best shot is in growing countries where they need new power and already have a grid.

  7. The London Array was 6.5 years from approval to connection. It cost €2.2 billion for a centralised renewable power station that provided 2.5 TWh in 2015. http://www.windpoweroffshore.com/article/1378756/london-array-breaks-offshore-production-record

    Despite the clear benefits of high capacity factor, no land use, and no carbon emissions, there were environmental/conservation concerns which were sufficient to halt expansion of the array.

    I still really like it, but my main concern is plant lifespan – I’ve seen figures of 20 years; maybe refurbishment will be economical; certainly far short of the arbitrary 40 years originally assigned to reactors.

    Offshore wind potential appears to be huge in Australia, but as with solar thermal, practically nothing has come of it but a few studies.

    Certainly nobody is calling for it to be preemptively banned because of environmental concerns elsewhere in the world – not to mention *cost* or *time*, which as you make clear are now the entirety of the anti-nuclear position. After all, if the unique, intractable danger was as indefensible as 40 years of uncomprimising activism insists it is, why bother with cost/time arguments?

    Testimony to the NFCRC indicates the availability of economically constructed SMRs like Terrestrial Energy’s IMSR and HOLTEC’s HI-SMUR in around 10 years. The senator’s proposal gives a similar timeframe for PRISM. We know all three vendors are keenly interested in the pregnant Australian nuclear scene and want to bring jobs and clean energy to South Australia. Our regulations just need to be dragged in to the present, and nuclear be made as legal as offshore wind.

  8. Rather than expressing views on the feasibility of nuclear power (which is a business decision that they will never be called upon to make) commentators on nuclear power might make a greater contribution to the public good by focussing on what really matters to the public, namely public health and safety. Nuclear is the most highly regulated industry in the world and, it seems to me, the most effectively regulated in the world from a safety point of view. For public safety, the nuclear industry outstrips almost all of the extractive, manufacturing and transportation industries. It is even up there with banking and retailing.

  9. It always pays to check. Sir Mark Oliphant’s daughter in law is quoted in the press saying that SA doesn’t need nuclear electricity as it is 41% renewable. As it happens SA is well discussed in the January 2016 Cedex report.

    An excerpt regarding December 2015 in SA
    APVI data show that energy consumption over the four hottest days was 5.4% higher than system consumption over this period. When the contribution of rooftop PV is included, the shares of the various supply sources become: gas 43.2%, local coal 20.2%, wind 18.5%, imports 12.8%, and rooftop solar 5.1%.
    I make that renewables under 24%.

  10. Green ideology sees the objective of climate change policy as the installation of renewables not necessarily CO2 emissions reduction. For example Germany is seen as the world leader on climate action because it installed 95GW of renewables in just 16 years giving a total of 105GW.

    Yet in 2016 German renewables produce just 30% of their electricity, most is provided by fossil fuels when wind and solar is not available.

    German CO2 emissions have been reduced by just 20 million tonnes in 16 years to 306 million tonnes, giving a CO2 intensity of 473g/kWh, well short of the desired climate target of less than 100g/kWh.

    https://www.agora-nergiewende.de/fileadmin/Projekte/2017/Jahresauswertung_2016/Agora_Jahresauswertung-2016_WEB.pdf

    (In German but for 2016 divide 306 million tonnes of CO2 emissions by 648TWh of electricity production gives 473g/kWh).

    Annual renewables subsidies are €25 billion giving German domestic electricity prices of €0.30/kWh.

    By contrast France installed 63GW of nuclear capacity in just 20 years replacing most of their fossil fuel capacity.

    French nuclear produces 75% of their electricity.

    French electricity CO2 intensity is just 73g/kWh or 6 times less than Germany.

    http://www.rte-france.com/en/eco2mix/chiffres-cles-en

    French domestic electricity prices are €0.16/kWh or half those of Germany.

    Yet another year of real world evidence that continues to show that while renewables enjoy popular political support they do not significantly reduce CO2 emissions.

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